Saturday, March 28, 2009

Patronise Cambodian or Expat-owned business?

A few days ago, a Kiwi couple told me about a European man who owns one of the largest corner bars here on Pub Street. The couple said they had the misfortune of having breakfast at his establishment and they almost threw up their meal because they overheard his conversation with a couple of fellow expat bar owners here in Siem Reap. The Kiwi couple was appalled at the racist conversation, which they said centred not just around Cambodians but also Africans. They told me the worst was a woman who had a French accent (not necessarily French, perhaps Belgian or another nationality that speaks French).

This group of expats, reported the couple, said Cambodia has passed its heyday, at least for them. It is now too crowded, there's too much competition so perhaps it is time for them to move to Burma and make their fortune there now.

There will always be F.I.L.T.H.y people like this in less developed countries. If they are the hotshot business people they imagine themselves to be, let's see them succeed in their home country. But no, they come specifically to an under-developed country so they can make their fortune exploiting locals who desperately need jobs and ignorant tourists who have no clue about the establishments they patronise. And where they can shine because there is little competition.

A former employee of Bloom cafe who went on to join an Australian-owned pub in Phnom Penh popular with expats told me how staff were expected to work till 4 or 5am in the mornings so long as there were guests, without overtime pay. Kosal quit this job soon after because he was exhausted. As a waiter he was on his feet all day and some days would get only 3 or 4 hours sleep--all for USD100 a month. Meanwhile he told me, the pub would bring in hundreds, even thousands a nite, especially on the nights it hosts private parties. (Kosal now rents a stall in the Old Market here in Siem Reap selling souvenirs and I am happy to see he's done well for himself).

I once had a discussion with the American owner of a cafe pub who was telling me how there was a campaign a few years ago by Cambodian restaurant and pub owners to "buy local", so to speak. This group tried to market their businesses as "Khmer-run", "Khmer-owned", "Help Khmer" etc etc.

He and I agreed there are many Khmer owners who are just as unkind, if not more, to their staff, often paying pittance and coming up with all sorts of rules to discipline staff. One large restaurant here, owned by a Cambodian, for instance, docks USD1 off the pay of staffers who turn up 3 minutes late for work. (Why bother to turn up at all, I wonder, given that most of them earn only USD2 a day).

This same company, which owns multiple businesses here in the heart of town, also keeps USD100 of each staff member's pay as a "deposit", returned only if the staff member has worked at least a year. This is illegal in Cambodia, but desperate people are not going to smash their ricebowls. Everyone I know who works there complains privately about it but dare not report this practice to the authorities. Not that the police would help anyway.

Some of the Cambodian business people are filthy rich and don't actually need your "help"; they help themselves to plenty in the country as it is. I can't even say buy local because at least the money stays in the country--you can bet that some of the money is in Swiss or Singapore bank accounts. ("Not too long ago, a friend of mine from Cambodia intimated to me a story about four women, all single, from Phnom Penh depositing SGD$80 million (USD53m) between them in Singapore banks. No questions asked. “Four single women? SGD$80 million? From Cambodia which is dirt poor?” she asked with a mixture if rhetoric and incredulity, “And no one here bothers to ask how they got the money?” source.

An interesting aside on parking money in Singapore:
Attractive Tax Framework:
One of the most attractive aspects of Singapore as an offshore jurisdiction is that it has one of the lowest taxation rates in Asia. Non-residents who park their money in Singapore pay no taxes if that money is earned outside of Singapore, and investment gains earned in Singapore (from stocks for example) are also exempt from tax. Singapore is also one of the few offshore centers which was not included in the EU Savings Tax Directive in 2005, an EU initiative to exchange information on EU citizens parking money abroad for tax reasons. In Singapore, not paying taxes owed to foreign authorities is not a crime. In 2004, Singapore amended its trust laws to allow foreigners to sidestep state interference in many European countries which dictates how inheritance is carved up.

Banking secrecy laws
Singapore has very strict banking secrecy laws: customer confidentiality can only be lifted under a court order. A sentence of $78,000 or three years in prison is given for the disclosing of information about customers and their accounts.

And of course, unlike the bunch of expats mentioned at the start of this entry, there are foreigners who believe in global business best practices, such as treating your staff well. Not all are here for purely to make money for their nest eggs; some are here to help.

So the question of whether to patronise foreign-owned or locally-owned is not an easy one to answer. There are good and bad business owners, regardless of their nationality. If you are really interested in supporting a good organisation, you just have to do research and speak with locals. One easy and good way, as a customer pointed out to me, is to see how happy the staff are.

What I can tell you are the ones I patronise: I like Angkor Famous located in the Alley, south of Pub Street. The owners are Khmer who escaped to the US after living in a refugee camp in Thailand. This couple has worked hard for their business--they worked as butchers in the US. I like them because they are kind and their staff are cheerful and lovely. And there is little staff turnover, unlike some restaurants here that are forever advertising for staff.

I used to go often to Khmer Kitchen too, and in fact, have recommended it to many customers because I think it's fairly priced and I used to like its food. I have to say it has been disappointing lately, because they are obviously trying to cut costs. That restaurant is owned by a Khmer woman whom I am told used to be a cook for Doctors without Borders before she opened her own restaurant. A Cambodian told me she was given some money by some foreigners to start the small restaurant which has now grown to two in the old market area. Khmer Kitchen is famous because Mick Jagger ate there, or so says one guide book.


aestamary said...

Great article. Am glad you tackled this issue. It is often difficult to make a judgment on someone else's values. One can only work hard on one's self.

guard runner said...

hallo from italy

Diana Saw said...

Well hallo back Guard Runner. Wish I could read your blog- it looks interesting.

And thanks for the comment Humma.


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